Little Life Stories

3. Samples with a Heart 

Daniel Magdu, Covacița, Serbia. Generation 80. 

When I talk about ethnicity, I am without a doubt Romanian, and so are my mother and father. 

I am proud to live in this part of Europe that is Banat, in the geographical and historical sense of the word, and even in the way of sensibility. Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians and Slovaks live here, there are mixed marriages, we respect each other, this is a way of life for us. My great-grandfather spoke 7 languages, he was an official translator for the courthouse in Biserica Albă, he spoke Romanian, Serbian, Czech, Russian, French, German and Hungarian. The way we live, the interaction between different ways of life, traditions and cultures constantly enriches us, we take and borrow from each other. This aspect became even more prominent after the Second World War because of industrialisation, roads were built, public transport, then personal cars, all of these contributed too; even today, with technology and digitalisation, some aspects are lost, but we always add new ones. 

Languages intersect here. 

A multi-ethnic environment helped me everywhere in the world, I adapted much faster. For me, it was normal. You never feel truly foreign anywhere, you get used to having someone different next to you, a different language or culture. 

The first language I learnt was Romanian. I only started learning Serbian when I was 3 or 4 years old. I was born in Belgrade, then I grew up as a Romanian in a majority Slovak village, in a block with 12 flats built by the factory where my father worked. The families who occupied those 12 flats came from all over former Yugoslavia, from Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Croatia or from around here, in the area. I grew up in a mini-Europe in the Balkans. Basically, we were a minority in the country, a minority in the village, a minority in the block, or no, I think we, the Romanians, were the majority in the building. The block was in the centre, it was a small town, around 8.000 inhabitants, there was no traffic on the streets, all the children played outside, alongside our Roma neighbours, who lived clandestinely in another block.

What were we playing? Same as in America, in Western movies, good guys, bad guys, cowboys and Indians. In Yugoslavia it was the partisans, the good guys, and Germans, the bad guys. I was always the bad guy, the German, because I was blond with blue eyes. We had plastic rifles, it was as if someone was preparing us for what was to come later, we didn’t know back then war was coming. We spoke Serbian, but at school we also learned the language of the place, in my case Slovak. That was in the 1980s. Now this practice has been revived. 

For us, this ethnically diverse environment means normality, like tap water, like the mirror in the bathroom. That’s how it is in Vojvodina. I feel Romanian, but first and foremost I am human. I am defined by a culture, a tradition, a language, in some cases religion, but living in Banat, you have a second ethnicity, that of an inhabitant of Banat. Our block was a Fellini film, a Balkan Amarcord in the style of Kusturica. We never swore at each other based on ethnicity, but it mattered which football team you supported, Zrvena Zvezda or Partizan. The friendships from childhood continue to this today. 

There’s always a wind blowing here, that’s maybe why many of us have sinusitis. The Coșava wind blows over Coșevița. There is talk of a curse here, God provides and then takes it back. That’s the hardest, when you feel you’ve had something and then you don’t have it anymore. When I think of my childhood, I remember the smell of it, the physical one and then there’s another one, of the soul. I lived without worries, I could travel abroad, there were foreign TV programs, rock music, punk, concerts, porn movies, Walkman, Nike, Coca Cola, I didn’t lack anything, my parents gave me money, I didn’t know what to spend it on, because I had everything, but especially freedom.

There was a smell of freedom. In the ’90 things changed, the war and the sanctions started. There were no more cartoons on TV, we were cut off from the world. Parents, if they had 1.000 dinars in the morning, when the bank opened, they could buy 100 kg of meat with it; at 1pm the same money was worth dinars and they could buy a chewing gum with it. Inflation, power cuts, poverty, pensioners looking for something to eat in the dumpsters, war propaganda on TV, children our age, 12 years old, dying, and those sacrificed have no ethnicity. I, at that age, only knew that someone was fighting someone else, I didn’t understand why, what the background was, that there was a crisis, that it no longer was how it used to be. 

Much later, when I arrived in the West, I felt again that smell of childhood, of freedom. I was in Bruges, in Belgium, on Europe’s Day. I was 20 years old. I was at a funfair, lots of people, good times, and I could see that people were relaxed, that they had not gone through war, no bombs and poverty, and that the best years of my life had not been like that. I wondered why things had been different for us, why the country couldn’t disband peacefully, what it would have been like if Yugoslavia had joined the European community, what my life would have been if I had been like other children. If we could have gone to other countries without visas. There were always sanctions, restrictions, no sports, just a kind of football between us teenagers, we called it “coțchice”. We used to ride our bicycles, because nothing else was circulating, to go swimming in the river, music blaring behind us. 

We formed bands, we wanted to play, we improvised instruments. An electrician helped us and made us a loudspeaker with a distortion like Ace of Spades, Motorhead. We managed to sell it and finally got ourselves a proper band, with guitar, bass and drums. Piracy was in full bloom during the war. The biggest movies in America, we were watching them without any problem, a form of resistance against the war. Prodigy came for a gig in ’94. Biohazard too, my parents didn’t know where I was going, I had a moustache, I was a punk. Then electronic music came along, rave, all that kept me away from drugs. My student days were spent in Bucharest. Due to an error, I was not admitted to I.L.Caragiale Faculty for Film Editing, like my friends. I enrolled in another university, ASE (The Academy of Economic Sciences), in the Marketing section, thinking that marketing meant advertising. Later I was admitted to I.L.Caragiale, but I was no longer interested, my life had taken a different path. 

For a month I wandered around Bucharest, from dormitory to dormitory, until eventually I was assigned a place in Vitan. The military service I did later was a holiday compared to what I went through there. My parents didn’t know anything about me, how much money I had in my pocket. That was the situation and I handled it until help arrived. 6 years of studying in Bucharest without hearing my native language. I wanted to learn something new, to be in a different environment, that’s why I stayed. I was a foreign student, I had to go to Romanian language classes, where I always got an A, but I had classmates from all over the world, like in my childhood block. In Romania I was not perceived as Romanian, I was Serbian. 

Back home, in Serbia, I was Romanian. I wondered who I was. For me, my motherland was Romania, but I was not accepted, I was a foreigner and I faced obstacles. There were also teachers who made fun of me if I wasn’t prepared in class, they would say that I hadn’t learned for class, but I had learned to fight Americans. I didn’t expect anyone to protect me, the poor Romanian who came from a historical community of Romanians and went through a war, I wanted to learn and to have equal treatment. But we, the people from Banat, are allergic to injustice and I fought to prove that I was deserving and able. If I put my mind to it, I stick to it, and so I did. The city of Bucharest and its neighbourhoods understood me, I had no problems with anyone, I spoke their language, I even tamed stray dogs. I wasn’t afraid. I lived in Rahova, in Militari, in Ghencea, in Vitan. I wore a T-shirt with Rage Against the Machine.

After finishing university, I volunteered to join the army. There, I set up a military orchestra. I brought my Reghin electric guitar, I still have it. You had to have distortion, no matter the music genre. After the army, I went into agriculture. I grew gherkin cucumbers and watermelon. I didn’t want to sit around. I was waiting for my economics degree from Bucharest so I could get a job. I also worked in the laboratory of the Sugar Factory for a few days, I was good with computers. They also had distortion, the noise there was infernal. 

Afterwards I went to work as a weighing supervisor in a village. They would make a pyramid out of sugar beet, they grew quite a lot of it in those days, and trucks came from the Sugar Factory to load it. I was fair to everyone. I didn’t want anyone to steal or others to be stolen from. I earned the respect of the villagers. I met simple, hardworking people. In the meantime, I got my economist diploma from Bucharest. I wanted to work in Novi Sad, but I was taken for a Romanian with studies in Romania. I was asked how come I spoke Serbian so well. I had no work experience in the field, I was not in any party, but I wanted to start somewhere, to know that I could do what I had trained to do. I was 24 or 25 years old, I was just a young man, I hoped Serbia would take the same path as Romania and align with European values and be able to contribute and grow alongside the community I was part of.

In my village, at the town hall where I still work to this day, a local economic development department had opened. I was the perfect candidate, I spoke English, I had the necessary education, I had to start somewhere, and this was the perfect opportunity. I agreed to volunteer for a while, just to be in the thick of things. There were several young people who had higher education degrees in my village, some chose to go and work for a bank, but my parents agreed to help and support me even though I was volunteering at the town hall every day for 8 hours or more. 

Thanks to the cross-border programme and to a mentor, Teodora Borghoff, a person of rare kindness, I am where I am today, working on projects of regional importance and beyond. I’ve missed Billy Idol concerts because of this, I’ve been wanting to see him all my life, but I never managed. Other things have worked out for me. Anytime I called her [Teodora Borghoff], she helped me write and conceive projects. And I’ve always been interested in development projects, with government involvement that will make a change for the better. Small farmers had the possibility to access funds and credit lines for agriculture, for business plans. I was living off a grant from the Labour Force at the time and, together with a Hungarian friend who had finished the Faculty of Agronomy in Subotica and the accountancy courses at the town hall, we started to design business plans for small farmers. 

We made a software and managed to access funds for them, they got between 300 and 800 euros. We also managed to save some money and we went on a little holiday to Văliug, but with a purpose, to find out where Timiș river springs from, because I grew up on the banks of Timiș. At Semenic we met a shepherd and his sheep, we asked him about Timiș and he told us he didn’t know about Timiș, that the river there was called Tămașu. We spoke the same language, the dialect from Banat.

In 2008, after taking an exam that allowed me to work in public institutions, I managed to get a job at the town hall, in the local economic development department. The state was stagnating at the time, I didn’t want to get into politics, I couldn’t get promoted even though I was the best in the field, so I did a master’s degree in Timisoara, in economics and regional development management. At 3 pm I would finish work, get in my ’88 Ford, go to Jimbolia and then to classes. I came to classes more often than my colleagues from Timisoara. Sometimes even four times a week. In 2010 I graduated magna cum laude, and I am proud of that. Extraordinary teachers trained me. I travelled to the West, I enrolled in a course on EU regional policies funded by the EU in Brussels. There were 300 students and many subjects, I stood out as a man who was familiar with the field, but eager for information and knowledge, I was surrounded by specialists already working in administration, I had meetings, all this helped me enormously and I knew that I could, in turn, help my village.

Then came other capacity building trips to Maastricht, and so our administration became prepared for a smooth and meaningful regional economic development. Things were moving in the right direction. New and young people came to work at the town hall, they made use of my knowledge and vision, in time I became the Head of the Department of Investment, Agriculture and Local Economic Development. In 3 years, we completed 4 EU funded projects that are still alive today. Just yesterday we concluded one with the municipality of Berliște, a project dedicated to the valorisation of medical services. People from the town of Zrenjanin come here for medical check-ups. We have also done consultancy for hotels and regional leisure centres, which have resulted in TV news stories about the cultural richness of the area, in more tourists, in marketing strategies. 

of Romanian Minorities in Serbia. Me, a punk who entered public administration with ambition and strategy. I’ve always liked challenges, I can’t stay still, the artistic sense I had, which I never lost, helps me find creative solutions in administration and even in politics. I have an open mind. Now most people who are looking for me want something from me. I know a lot about everything, I can see the big picture, I can think up strategies, I can establish tactics, I can foresee obstacles and how I can avoid them or solve them, like when you throw a stone into the water and it doesn’t sink from the start, but dances on the water’s surface and can reach the other bank safe and sound. 

My grandmother had a saying: you gave a dinar to join the dance, now you would give two to get out, but you no longer can.

You cannot overcome injustice or evil with kindness. You have to be worse than the worst so that justice and goodness can rule. I see everything around me, some I can’t change immediately, I’m not all-powerful. I don’t believe in extremes, there is not just black and white, there are shades, and I want the light shades to predominate, not the dark ones. That’s what you learn through maturity, experience and interaction. If you climb some rungs in life too quickly, just as quickly you will roll back or fall down. When you fall down after a few rungs, you can easily get back up and climb further. And if your castle is made of sand, look for a better foundation, look for other materials, take it one step at a time. 

After almost 30 years of existence, I asked him what life smells like now. I learn that the smell of childhood has not been lost, but as he matured, other smells have taken form. The Coșava wind has kind of clogged my nose, I have sinusitis, I can’t smell much anymore. But sometimes there are places that unclog my nose and then I can smell again. Everything I’ve accomplished has been in small steps, on my street, in my neighbourhood, in my block of 12 flats, in my village and so on, and it all starts at home, in childhood, when you wake up and make your bed. That’s where the change starts. 

We don’t all have to think alike, but we can define a common purpose in the community we live in, and that takes commitment. Those who resist at some point will follow your example. 

I was listening to Daniel Magdu, thinking about that block of 12 flats, and for some reason my thoughts went to the Last Supper and the 12 Apostles. I asked if there was a Jesus in that block. I found out there wasn’t, but they were all driven by a strong desire to better the lives of their children and the country. Maybe some betray, maybe some leave, maybe some are false preachers, but always, in order for evil to triumph it is enough for good men to do nothing, that is the essential ingredient. That’s why action is needed, a stand. 

Can we rebuild now, in 2022, that block with 12 families from your childhood and youth, with that smell of freedom, with those ideals? Yes, it is possible, Daniel tells me, even if the historical circumstances are different. Homes are on the move now, we’re fleeing war, poverty, but we can’t let humanity slip through our fingers. There have been people who have fled war, who have left everything and have gone wherever their feet took them, from one city to another. And not one or two, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. Some of them are now my neighbors. Some homes become moving fireplaces against their will. If we showed in the 20th century that we know how to die, let’s show in the 21st century that we know how to live. There is a need for collaboration in the Balkans, even if many choose a better life in more developed countries. 

In Tito’s Yugoslavia, a contract was signed in the 1960s with Willie Brandt and people emigrated for work. Firstly, people moved from rural to urban areas because of industrialisation, and secondly, people from both rural and urban areas moved to the West, predominantly to Germany. In Austria, 8 out of 10 migrants are from former Yugoslavia. The first generations who left, especially from this area, made money, built houses here and in retirement they came back. But their children, who were born there, who went to school there, they don’t need a house here, they prefer a city in a metropolis, a life in the system in which they lived, a holiday on an exotic island. Unfortunately, they have been assimilated there. The fireplaces here will probably die out, but maybe they have a chance in the diaspora.

Once upon a time, young people from the countryside were encouraged to leave the village, to come and work in the city, there were famous songs that said how nice it is to fall in love with a woman from the city. It’s hard to turn back that wheel, but the village must be revived.

Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu

English translation: Cristina Chira